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The history of the interpretation of literature begins with the word of God. For more than a dozen centuries, the only literature that mattered was Scripture, and the only serious question was, "What does the Author mean by that?" Discovery of the divine intention was the only goal of textual interpretation. Words meant what the Author intended them to mean. Those who thought they knew what God intended enforced their interpretations with war, excommunication, torture and economic sanction (see Figure 1).
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It is tempting to conclude that the reason no one believes this any more is that the people who believed it all killed each other off. But indeed, no one does believe it any more. The belief that the meaning of a work is determined by the author's intention is now called the intentionalist fallacy. It is a fallacy because even if a writer, or a writer's psychoanalyst, could tell us what the writer meant, we should not be limited by the author's conscious understanding of their work. Some very smart writers realize that an interpretation has more impact if we readers figure it out ourselves, so they wouldn't tell us even if we asked. Besides, most authors nowadays can't tell us what their work means--they're dead.
We will see later that in the twentieth century the umbilical cord from the author to the text is cut, and the text must make its own way in the world with whatever gifts the author gave it.
The only people who still use the author's intention as a guide to interpretation are in the field of law and literature, where the original intention of a legislative body when they drafted a law is still considered (by some) to be in effect throughout the life of that law, instrumented through the document. (This textual analysis of the law is the …